When you set up your home audio system, you need a receiver. These devices play a crucial role in determining the quality of the sound you will experience. When considering receivers, there are two main possibilities, and they determine how you use your sound system. We compared the differences and similarities between home theater receivers and stereo receivers to help you decide which one is right for your home entertainment system.

Home theater and stereo receiver

General conclusions

home theater
  • Five or more channels.

  • Full support for surround sound.

  • Compatible with various video inputs.

  • Several configurations are possible.

  • Music oriented.

  • The best sound quality.

  • Designed for high quality audio inputs.

  • Easier to set up.

A home theater receiver (also called an AV receiver or surround sound receiver) is optimized for use as a central connection and control hub for the audio and video needs of a home theater system. The stereo receiver is optimized for use as a control center and audio-only connection.

This does not mean that these receivers cannot be interchanged in a pinch. You hear better sound from an incompatible receiver than with the TV’s built-in speaker or a direct connection to your phone’s audio jack.

When considering receivers for your system, consider how you plan to use it most often and what types of applications are important to you.

Both have common features. However, a home theater receiver has features that a stereo receiver does not, and vice versa.

Home cinemas: fiction for film and television

  • At least five channels with amplification.

  • Surround sound decoding.

  • Several input formats specifically for home theaters.

  • HDMI support.

  • Focused on surround sound and video audio.

  • more complex configurations.

  • Less focused on absolute sound fidelity.

Key features of a typical home theater include:

  • At least five built-in amplifiers and subwoofer preamp output. This allows for a 5.1-channel setup that includes front left, center, front right, surround left and surround right speakers, as well as active subwoofer .
  • Built-in decoding surround sound for surround sound formats Dolby Digital and DTS . These formats can be included on DVDs, Blu-ray discs, Internet streaming sources, and some TV programs.
  • Built-in radio tuner (AM/FM only or FM only).
  • One or more analog and digital optical or coaxial audio inputs.
  • HDMI connectivity for audio and video transmission for resolutions up to 1080p . An increasing number provide video transmission 4K and HDR .

HDMI connections can also pass through all available surround sound formats and also support Audio Return Channel and HDMI-CEC .

Additional home theater options

Additional features that may be included in many home theater systems (at the discretion of the manufacturer):

  • Additional amplifiers to accommodate 7.1, 9.1, 11.1 or 13.1 channels.
  • Second exit to subwoofer preamp .
  • Integrated audio decoding for one or more immersive surround sound formats such as Dolby Atmos , DTS: X and Auro 3D Audio .
  • Automatic speaker setup system such as AccuEQ (Onkyo), Anthem Room Correction (Anthem AV), Audyssey (Denon/Marantz), MCACC (Pioneer) and YPAO (Yamaha). These systems place the supplied microphone in the listening position and connect it to a home theater receiver. The receiver sends test signals to each speaker, which are picked up by the microphone. The speaker setup program calculates the speaker size and distance from your listening position. It then calculates the crossover (the point at which low frequencies are sent to the subwoofer and mids and highs are sent to the rest of the speakers) and channel level settings.
  • Multi-zone connection and control allows you to manage two or more audio or audio/video systems in other rooms using direct amplification or the use of external amplifiers.
  • Compound ethernet and WiFi creates a connection to your home network router for Internet streaming and media access on PCs and other compatible devices.
  • Streaming internet connection provides access to Internet radio and additional Internet music streaming services .
  • Wireless multi-room audio gives some home theater receivers the ability to send selected audio sources to wireless speakers located in other rooms.

Examples of multi-room audio platforms are MusicCast (Yamaha) , PlayFi (Anthem, Integra, Pioneer) and HEOS (Denon/Marantz) .

  • Some home theater systems may provide direct streaming from devices Bluetooth and Airplay .
  • One or two USB ports are sometimes included. This allows you to access music content from connected USB devices such as thumb drives.
  • All home theater receivers can transmit video signals from a connected source to a TV or video projector. Many of them provide additional video processing and scaling including parameter setting or calibration modes.
  • Voice control of music streaming, music playback and selection of setting functions via Alexa or Google Assistant .

For examples of home theater receivers, check out our periodically updated list of the best home theater receivers by price $399 or less , $400 to $1299 and $1300 and up .

Stereo receiver: more musical experience

  • Designed for music.

  • Focus on two channels to match stereo music recording.

  • Attention to the highest sound quality.

  • Simple configuration for convenient music connection.

  • Limited to two channels.

  • Limited connectivity for video inputs.

You may not need home theater capabilities if you only want to listen to music. In this case stereo receiver may be the best option for you (and a favorite of many serious music listeners).

The basic characteristics of a stereo receiver differ from a home theater receiver in two respects. A stereo receiver usually only has two built-in amplifiers that provide a two-channel speaker configuration (left and right). Surround sound decoding or processing is not provided. The stereo receiver can only have analog audio connections.

Additional functions of the stereo receiver

Just like home theaters, there are additional options that stereo receivers may have at the discretion of the manufacturer. Some additional features are the same as for home theater receivers.

Connecting A/B speakers allows connect up to four speakers, but does not result in surround sound. The B speakers mirror the main speakers and are powered by the same two amplifiers. This means that half of the power goes to each speaker.

The A/B speaker option is useful when listening to the same audio source in a second room, or when you need more lighting in a large room.

Zone 2 operation via pre-outs can be provided, but requires connection to external amplifiers.

Unlike the A/B speaker configuration, if the Zone 2 option is enabled, different audio source settings can be sent to the main and remote stereo settings.

Some stereo receivers are advertised as 4-channel. While these receivers have four built-in amplifiers, the third and fourth channels are mirrors of the main left and right channel amplifiers. This feature is convenient in that it supplies power to the speakers elsewhere without splitting the power from the two main amplifiers, as would be the case with an A/B switch or connecting an external amplifier, as would be the case with the Zone 2 function.

A 4-channel stereo receiver may or may not send different sources to each set of speakers.

Some stereo receivers provide a subwoofer preamp output. This allows the compact main speakers to be used in combination with a subwoofer to reproduce extremely low frequencies.

This type of configuration is called a 2.1 channel setup.

Most stereo receivers provide a headphone connection for private listening.

Although they were removed from many stereo receivers after the release of CDs, the inclusion of a dedicated phono/player input jack is making a comeback, thanks to the resurgence in popularity of vinyl record playback.

Digital optical and digital coaxial audio inputs provide audio connectivity flexibility for CD players, DVD players, Blu-ray players, media streamers, and cable and satellite boxes.

Unlike a home theater receiver, digital coaxial and optical connections on stereo receivers cannot carry Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound. When connected to a stereo receiver, these connections only pass two-channel PCM audio signals.

Just as wireless multi-room audio is an optional feature on some home theater receivers, there are a limited number of stereo receivers that provide this capability. One example is the MusicCast platform available on some Yamaha stereo receivers.

Some stereo receivers include Ethernet and Wi-Fi for accessing music streaming services and LAN devices Bluetooth can also be provided for direct music streaming from compatible smartphones and tablets. In addition, a USB connection is available for music content stored on a flash drive.

While stereo receivers are designed for listening to music, some provide the convenience of connecting to video. You can find a stereo receiver that provides an analog (composite) or HDMI connection, although this is rare. On these stereo receivers, video connections are provided for end-to-end convenience only.

The stereo receiver does not provide video processing or scaling capabilities. Any audio sent to an HDMI stereo receiver is limited two-channel PCM .

Final verdict

Home theaters and stereo receivers are great home entertainment centers, but each has its own role to play. However, this does not mean that you should buy both to suit your needs.

Although the home theater receiver is optimized for surround sound and video, it can also operate in two-channel stereo. This allows you to listen to music in the traditional style only.

When the home theater receiver is in 2-channel stereo mode, only the front left and right speakers (and possibly the subwoofer) are active.

If you want an audio-only system for serious music listening (or a hub for a second room) and don’t need the extra video that a home theater receiver offers, a stereo receiver and a good pair of speakers might just be the ticket. ,

Not all home theater or stereo receivers have the same combination of features. Depending on the brand and model, a different set of functions is possible. When shopping, check the feature list of your home theater or stereo receiver and, if possible, get a listening demo before making a purchase decision.

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